Year after year, for more than four decades, hot air balloons have lifted from Iredell County grounds, inspiring wonder and awe. As the Carolina BalloonFest moves into its 46th year, this annual exhibition of aviation and excitement embraces its footing as one of the area’s most celebrated occasions.
“[BalloonFest] engulfs the community in a variety of ways,” said Kristie Darling, balloonist with Big oh! Balloons, a Cleveland-based business since 1981. “It’s more than ballooning, which is cool. It’s just a really huge community activity.”
What began in 1974 as a rally of enthusiasts in Love Valley has blossomed immensely in years of celebration, festivities, and flying. Known as the second oldest, consecutively hosted hot air balloon event in the United States — second only to the nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — Carolina BalloonFest has cemented its tradition across Iredell County, North Carolina, and beyond. The event beckons balloon owners from the entire East Coast, plus visitors from the Carolinas and farther.
Today, the event not only recognizes the vast history of hot air ballooning in the area, but it serves as an annual nonprofit fundraiser for its greater region.
“It’s just become a special, wonderful place to fly,” Darling said. “We’re all grateful that the event is nonprofit and gives back to the community, and it’s great to be part of that.”
In 2018, the Carolina BalloonFest raised $115,000 for more than 30 local agencies, nonprofits, and community partners. Event leaders now look toward 2019’s event, Oct. 18-20 at the Statesville Regional Airport, for another year of six-digit donations.
Carol Johnson, executive board chair for 2018 and 2019, said the nonprofit BalloonFest has “given in excess of $100,000 per year” for the last several years. “We have an opportunity to have fun and contribute money to area nonprofits.”
That, she noted, makes it an event worth discussing all year long.
“We work hard to keep it part of the community,” said Johnson, noting a regular presence on social media, as well as across Statesville-area events in the months prior to the October balloon launches. “We try to keep it front and center as much as we can throughout the year.”
From tethered balloons at Statesville’s summertime Friday After Five to publicity at the annual Crossroads Cycling Criterium, Johnson added that BalloonFest becomes visible year-round, spreading education on hot air ballooning and history in addition to raising much-needed dollars — the two core goals of BalloonFest’s nonprofit, National Balloon Rally Charities, Inc.
“Preserving the history and heritage of ballooning in this area is one of the two goals of the organization, to preserve and maintain that history,” Johnson said.
And that history is what gave Carolina BalloonFest its start so long ago.
Statesville’s hot air balloon history extends nearly 55 years, when in 1965, designs were standardized for Federal Aviation Administration certification with the assistance of area ballooner Tracy Barnes. He joined Bill Meadows on Oct. 4, 1969, for the first flight in Iredell County, launching from Statesville. The two continued within the sport, forming respective balloon businesses in the area — Barnes beginning The Balloon Works (now FireFly Balloons in Statesville) and Meadows establishing Balloon Ascensions, LTD. Meadows then founded Carolina BalloonFest as The National Balloon Rally in 1974, merging his training company with Barnes’ manufacturing customers for the first-ever event.
“When it originated in the early years, it was in Love Valley and it was just an opportunity for people who purchased balloons,” Johnson said. “More of a social and training event.”
As the years continued, the festival grew from its humble location at Rhyne Aerodome to new and larger venues. It began to welcome balloon owners and spectators alike, soon prospering into a three-day family-friendly event featuring flights, as well as kids’ activities, live entertainment, balloon exploration and education, artisan vendors, international food, and more.
“We have lots of avid spectators throughout the community, but people come from long distances to be part of this festival,” Johnson said. “And, hopefully once they come, they continue to come back.”
The real excitement, consistently, remains in the sky for viewers and balloonists.
“It’s magical. To see that many balloons in the air at one time is absolutely beautiful,” Kristie Darling said. “The sky is just so gorgeous filled with balloons. It will take your breath away.”